stack of books surrounding notepad

Some thoughts on writing with research

I visited the Clinton Public Library last night to talk with some writers about using research in writing and, as always, I learned more from them than I think they learned from me. In no particular order of importance or priority, here are some of the “rules” of writing from research that we agreed upon.

  1. Yes, all that background reading is necessary. No, it shouldn’t keep you from the actual writing; if you’re drafting or revising a scene or passage and know you need to plug in some detail, make a note to yourself—add a comment using your word processing program, put instructions to yourself in brackets, or add a sticky flag to your piece of paper. But knowing your historical world is another example of the iceberg effect: you want to be familiar with all this background detail so you can show the tip of the iceberg to the reader, pulling out the detail, event, setting, description, or context that will make the world come alive. So, yes, keep trudging through those piles and piles of newspapers. And make sure you have a system for organizing all that interesting info you find, because you never know when a scene or paragraph is going to call for it.
  2. Make use of your local libraries, museums, and historical societies. One thing that some attendees were surprised to learn is that residents of the state have free access to the state-run university libraries. It’s called a community borrower card, and all you need to do to procure one is present proof of residence, like a driver’s license or other ID. The community borrower cards don’t give you access to all the resources that you would have as a paying student or paid staff, but these places exist because of your taxes. The same is true for your city libraries, community colleges, historical societies and all government-funded museums, parks, and other cultural resources. Don’t forget about presidential libraries, things like the Smithsonian, and community publications like local newspapers. Your local library likely has troves of wonderful information in archives that haven’t yet made it to the public shelves. Ask for a peek!
  3. Tread warily online. While laudable for its virtues of high speed and easy access, research on the Internet holds some particular dangers. Erroneous information can be widely duplicated, especially if it originates with a Wikipedia article (remember, anyone can make an account and edit a Wikipedia article. Consider editing or creating one on your topic!). Conflicting information might abound. Some sites are more carefully curated than others; some publications on offer are more rigorously and scrupulously edited than others. I like the world-wide web for getting quick, fast overviews or checking facts I think I know, but when it comes to deep information, I prefer to get into a library and get my hands on the real resources. (Yes, libraries have increasing swaths of information online, but those resources tend to be creditable, indexed, searchable, and curated, which makes them more valid if sometimes less easy to use than, say, Google. But that is why we have librarians.)
  4. At some point, you have to start writing. You have all this information: now where to begin? My answer for nonfiction is the same as for fiction: begins where the story starts. Find your subject, your main cast of characters, the people or family or group who are going to put a human face on this era. Plot their narrative, and begin. Don’t think you have to do more research before you start writing. You’re smart enough to multi-task—write some, read some, think and write some more.
  5. Know your audience—who you’re writing your book for. This makes a big difference. Some readers thirst for historical detail and are willing to wallow in pages and pages of it. Some readers (especially in certain fiction genres) want a few fast orientations in time and place before they jump into the scene. Are you writing a family history for kids and future generations? Are you unearthing a local history that will astonish and interest your community? Are you writing an entertaining historical narrative, offering a biography of an unknown person, or creating an academic-type study with all the attendant apparatus? Once you have an idea of your genre, read other books like it to get a sense for how your audience likes the historical detail to be handled. This will also help you in marketing. One of the workshop attendees wrote a memoir about her time at a very special summer camp. The first thing she did was contact the camp’s board of directors to ask them if they would be interested in helping her publish and market the book. Other attendees and families familiar with the camp are going to be the huge audience for her work, so this was a smart move.

These points, we decided, are some of the most important reminders that historical writers might need. If you’ve got lessons, advice, tips, or secrets of your own, feel free to share them here. Happy writing!

On taking encouragement where you find it

Shortly after hearing that my collection THE NECESSARIES was not advancing to the final round for the Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman, sponsored by Carolina Wren Press, I also learned that my poem was not among the winners selected for the Wandering Word sidewalk poetry contest this year. Rejection, as usual, spawns a host of anxieties.

One of them is to compare myself to last year, when a contest-winning book of short stories was published and one of my poems WAS a winner in the Wandering Words contest. I fear: uh-oh, I’m not as good as I used to be. I’ve lost something. I’m slipping.

Then I take this rejection as a sign of my ability to get this novel revised, submitted, accepted, published, and in the hands of readers. I worry this “no thanks” is a subtle “you’re not good enough.” I try to pull myself away from the brink with encouragement: Keep working. Maybe someday, you will be good enough. You’ll be the winner. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe soon.

Then I try to boost myself by saying, “Yeah, but look what you HAVE done.” Like, here’s that poem of yours from last year, now carved in stone for pedestrians in Muscatine to observe and consider. Maybe it brings a smile. Maybe it will surprise and touch somebody. Maybe it will become a touchstone for a resident who walks this sidewalk every day and when she crosses this pavement promises herself my heart is renewed—because that’s the kind of magic ritual I like to incorporate into my day.

And then, after the thoughts do their whirls and twirls and dips and swirls, they settle like birds at the place that feeds them: I come back to the page, grope my way into this place and the heads of these characters, and tell as best I can what I see and hear and feel and remember. Any everything else falls away: rejection, success, publication, criticism. There is only the story, the work at hand, to write as well as I can. In writing as in meditation: this moment is all that matters.

And that helps a lot.

Flash nonfiction: Cortege

Ever since studying flash prose with Kathleen Rooney at the David Collins Writing Conference last year, I’ve been experimenting with short fiction. But a book of very short essays I’ve been reading has inspired me to start working with very short nonfiction as well. Here’s a result of that experimentation, still quite new (and quite rough), that I added to the instant anthology formed by participants at the Society of Great River Poets’ Creativity Camp at Langwood Education Center that I attended this past weekend. I’ll never abandon the novel as a form—no, never—but I am enjoying the skill and precision it takes to achieve such compression. I’d love to hear what you think of short prose in general and flash nonfiction in particular.


Cortège

Two blocks from my house, I saw the rippling lights and thought, What is expected of a pedestrian when a funeral procession approaches? I was on the sidewalk, not in anyone’s way, but out of some instinct I stopped and clasped my hands together, head slightly bowed, as the hearse came toward me. I’ve been in the procession enough times to know it’s an insult to the bereaved to see other people going about their lives, unshadowed, untouched by tragedy. The hearse paced solemnly by and then it didn’t seem polite to disregard the rest of the retinue, cars in a string like beads, headlights blinking. I waited and a couple walking their dog joined me, pausing out of the same instinct, reverence for the mighty reach of death. We exchanged chat. Did I know whose funeral it was? I didn’t. Did I suppose they were going to St. Mary’s, up on Logan? Ah, I said. I’d been wondering where they were headed, where the beloved was to be interred. I observed the length of the line of cars. Some pillar of the community? They’re young drivers, she said. Ah, I thought again, the young always bring out crowds. Finally the last car departed and we all took a big relieved stride, headed back to our day and our tasks. We shared cheery goodbyes as if we had been through something together. I resumed my walk in a day with a new brightness to it, the trees outlined by light. The shadow had passed to the edge of my vision, not completely withdrawn, but with the sky so blue, the sun shining, the air warm and brilliant and full of spring, there didn’t seem any point in thinking about it, at the risk of calling it back.

The Necessaries and being near finals

It’s finals season, so I’ve been nutty for the past week: papers were rolling in, grade sheets were being updated hourly, and the flurry of emails from panicked and pleading students reached fever pitch. Today, I’m happy to pause and take a breath: the papers are read, the grades are filed, and my gradebook is turned into the Registrar. (Yes, MCC asks that adjuncts turn gradebooks into the Registrar—I suppose that’s to save time for grade questions or disputes in cases where the adjunct skips town, goes on vacation, gets a job that provides health insurance and sick leave, or takes a post teaching ESL in China—or all the above.)

In other final-related news, I’ve been informed that my short story collection The Necessaries is still in the running for the Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman hosted by Carolina Wren Press. I believe it need not be said that this is an enormous hug from the universe. That collection has received flattering rejections from a handful of contests, and a very kindly rejection from a local publisher as well, so it’s nice to know that it caught someone’s eye and stuck. I know the competition is fierce and beautiful for this particular award, so I can truly say it’s an honor to have made it this far, to be in such exalted company. I would like to see that book take on life in the world, so it can stop dwelling so largely in my mind and go dwell in the mind of readers.

If you’re not familiar with Carolina Wren Press, one of those brilliant but small independent presses bringing exquisite literary words into the world, let me direct you first to two books of poetry by other Cornell alum and fabulously talented women: Punish Honey by Karen Leona Anderson and Binary Stars by Dana Koster, this year’s poetry release. But really, you can’t go wrong if you browse anywhere among this booklist, including the previous Bakwin Award winner, Hola and Goodbye by Donna Miscolta.

Incidentally, if you read the reviews for Hola and Goodbye, let me just say that Lysley Tenorio was teaching at UW-Madison when I took a fiction writing night class there as a special student, taking a break from being a management consultant in my daily life, and he said to me, “You really ought to consider an MFA program.” I have followed his career with great interest ever since. And Luis Urrea is headlining the David R. Collins Writing Conference coming up in the Quad Cities June 22-24. Proof again that the literary world is small, but full of bite. I am still wandering through it like a starry-eyed pilgrim, wondering how I ventured into this marvelous magical place, and hoping I will be lucky enough that they let me stay.

Spring publications

Inspired by a set of workshops given by John Peragine at the Midwest Writing Center, I’ve been venturing into the world of freelance writing. And I’m delighted to say that one of my novice efforts has just appeared in the spring issue of Muscatine Magazine, an award-winning magazine published by the Greater Muscatine Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

I spent a wonderful hour with Sheila Chaudoin, archivist and historian at Musser Public Library, talking about the history of the library’s current building. Sheila led me to an amazing photographic resource I didn’t know existed, the Upper Mississippi Valley Digital Image Archive. While my current historical novels are set in England, as soon as I saw this resource, I saw a whole new story world open before me, and I can’t wait to explore it.

I could have spent many more hours in the crowded backroom of the library, hearing Sheila talk about the extraordinary history of businesses and entrepreneurs and photographers in Muscatine, pawing through the piles of boxes on her shelves with intriguing labels, including an especially provocative one labeled Pearl City Press. (As a secret between you and me, Pearl City Press is the name of the imprint I want to start up as part of Writers on the Avenue’s new, official Iowa nonprofit corporation status. Can you imagine me as the founding editor of a fantastic local publishing house? I can!)

The Muscatine Magazine as a whole is entirely beautiful, and I urge you to read all of it. In the meantime, I’m hoping to stretch my wings—and hone my skills—as a freelancer. After all, my dream is to write well and get paid for it. So if you come across any good stories, send them my way! This weekend, you can find me at the Rock Island Lit Fest in Rock Island, IL, reading as part of the lit crawl on Friday night and flitting around the author fair at the Rock Island Public Library on Saturday. More info on this fabulous event hosted by the Midwest Writing Center available here.

And as soon as Pearl City Press is up and running, I’ll let you know.

Happy World Book Day!

Happy International Day of the Book, for all of you readers who celebrate on this day (and not, as in the UK, on March 3). To mark the day, I want to celebrate the publication of Patricia O’Donnell’s remarkable short story collection Gods For Sale, now available from Snake Nation PressGods For Sale is one of those collections that takes small moments in seemingly small lives and finds their beauty, enormity, and grace. I loved and was astonished by this book from start to finish, and I think it very deserving of the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award (a distinction it shares, I am delighted to say, with my own collection, A Lesson in Manners).

What’s on your bookshelf today?